Employers must act to address pay gap for part-time working mothers, experts say

6 Feb 2018 By Emily Burt

Caring obligations and lack of flexible work leave part-time women in lower-skilled roles

Improving the provision of flexible working is the key to addressing longer-term causes of gender pay gaps, experts have said, after a new study revealed the striking toll part-time work takes on the wage progression of working mothers. 

An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report published on 5 February found that by the time their first child reaches the age of 20, working mothers earn an average of 30 per cent less per hour than working fathers from a similar educational background. 

This was a steep rise from the 10 per cent gap between women and men before they had children. 

The IFS report attributed a quarter of this increased wage gap to inhibited wage progression as a result of many women moving into part-time work while raising children. A further tenth was put down to the higher propensity of mothers to opt out of the labour market altogether.

“The ‘motherhood penalty’ has long been an issue that employers and government have failed to address for both full-time and part-time working mothers,” Denise Keating, chief executive of the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, told People Management

“There are a number of contributory factors for this part of the pay gap. An assumption by line managers that working mothers don’t want additional responsibility on top of their childcare commitments, benevolent sexism – where colleagues and managers try to look after working mothers by giving them easy tasks – and a belief that working mothers will prioritise their children over their career, although the same belief is rarely applied to working fathers.

“All contribute to working mothers being passed over for pay rises and promotion.” 

Charles Cotton, CIPD performance and reward adviser, said it was important to remember that the burden of caring responsibilities extended beyond childcare. 

“The Office for National Statistics recently looked at how the pay gap was accounted for among part-timers – their sector of employment, the region they were based and their hours and earnings in the business,” he said. 

“These factors explained about 36 per cent of the difference – what it didn’t do was look at caring responsibilities, which fall predominantly on women.

“The IFS looks at the impact of childcare responsibilities, but there are also issues around elder care, or looking after relatives with care needs who may not necessarily be elderly but might have a disability, driving employees to balance their working hours with caring responsibilities.” 

The stagnation of earnings growth in part-time work has been shown to have a particularly significant impact on graduate women, who benefitted from wage progression most when they remained in full-time work. 

Female graduates who work full-time for seven years before having a child could see their average hourly rate increase by 6 per cent, above general wage inflation, as a result of continuing in full-time work for another year. But they lost that wage progression entirely when changing to part-time work. 

“We still have a labour market that is very inflexible in the type of jobs available – just 9 per cent of full-time jobs earning more than £20,000 a year are advertised as flexible. This is a big part of what is holding those women in part-time work back,” Jemima Olchawski, head of policy and insight at the Fawcett Society, told People Management

“The combination of caring responsibilities and the lack of quality flexible working options mean part-time workers are often ending up in jobs below their skill level – if you do have that flexibility, it becomes difficult to move on because you can’t guarantee that you can get the same deal in a new workplace.”

Olchawski suggested that while the majority of employers may offer some degree of flexible working, businesses should commit to practical action to improve flexible working provisions. This would benefit both working mothers and the overall business. 

“We want jobs to be made flexible by default – it’s good for women candidates who might not be able to conform to a rigid working week. It’s also really good for employers because it means that they start fishing in a bigger pond and reaching the most talented candidates, rather than those who can simply commit to a certain number of working hours,” she said. 

While the IFS report showed that the average hourly wage gap is almost 30 per cent lower than in the early 1990s, gender pay disparities continued to be a problem for UK businesses. 

Private companies with more than 250 employees have until 30 March to report on and justify their gender pay gaps to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. 

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